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Lawrence v. Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency

Court of Appeals of Michigan

July 11, 2017

SUZANNE LAWRENCE, Claimant-Appellant,
v.
MICHIGAN UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE AGENCY, Respondent-Appellee.

         Oakland Circuit Court LC No. 2015-150311-AE

          Before: O'Brien, P.J., and Jansen and Stephens, JJ.

          Per Curiam.

         Claimant, Suzanne Lawrence, appeals by leave granted[1] an opinion and order of the Oakland Circuit Court affirming a judgment of the Michigan Compensation Appellate Commission (MCAC) finding that Lawrence was paid unemployment benefits during a period of ineligibility and was required to remit reimbursement to respondent, the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (MUIA). We reverse.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case arises from a dispute over $158, an amount the MUIA alleges it overpaid Lawrence during a period for which Lawrence was ineligible to receive benefits. The underlying facts of this case are undisputed. At all times relevant to this appeal, Lawrence was seasonally employed by the Bloomfield Hills Country Club (BHCC). During the winter of 2013, like any other winter, Lawrence was temporarily laid off from her position. Upon her lay off, BHCC required Lawrence to use her vacation time. Lawrence's last day of work was January 4, 2013, and Lawrence received $820 in vacation pay for the weeks ending January 16, 2013, and February 2, 2013. At some point in early 2013, Lawrence applied for and was deemed eligible to receive unemployment benefits. According to Lawrence, she received her first unemployment check on February 20, 2013, which provided payment for the previous two weeks.

          Two years later, on April 7, 2015, the MUIA mailed Lawrence a Notice of Determination, indicating that because Lawrence received vacation pay during the benefit weeks ending on January 26, 2013, and February 2, 2013, she had been ineligible to receive unemployment benefits during that period. The Notice of Determination further indicated that Lawrence had been paid $79 in unemployment benefits for each week, for a total overpayment of $158. Lawrence was directed to "pay to the Agency in cash, by check, money order, EFT or MiWAM or deduction from benefits, restitution in the amount of $158.00 under MES Act, Section 62(a) as itemized above." Lawrence disputed the determination:

I protest the determination. It is May of 2015 and your determination concerns something that occurred in January of 2013, over two years ago. Under the doctrine of laches, waiver and estoppel, your determination is barred. A statute of limitations may also be applicable here. I have been prejudiced by the passage of time because I have been unable to find necessary records applicable to this time period, when I would have had access to those records years ago. My employer recently told me that I received vacation pay from 1/6/13 through 2/2/13 and that I was first paid by the [MUIA] on 2/20/13, for the prior two weeks. Therefore, the available records do not support your conclusion.

         The MUIA issued a redetermination on May 6, 2015, restating its previous findings and decision without additional explanation. Lawrence disputed the redetermination and a telephone hearing was scheduled.

         The hearing occurred before an administrative law judge (ALJ) of the Michigan Administrative Hearing System (MAHS), without MUIA participation, on June 4, 2015. No exhibits were submitted or received before or during the hearing, and only Lawrence and a representative of BHCC, Cheryl Brennan, testified. The ALJ initially characterized the dispute as an appeal from the May, 2015, redetermination "that [Lawrence] was ineligible for two weeks under the remuneration provision of the Michigan Employment Security Act . . . for the benefit weeks of January 26th, 2013 and February 2nd, 2013." He therefore indicated that Lawrence would bear the burden of proving eligibility during those weeks. However, Lawrence conceded that she was ineligible to receive benefits during those two weeks-the two weeks she received vacation pay from BHCC. In an attempt to clarify the issue, Lawrence again denied receiving any unemployment payments until February 20, 2013. Lawrence offered to "fax" the ALJ her bank statements, but the ALJ declined the offer, acknowledging that he had received her testimony on the matter. Thereafter, Brennan testified to confirm that Lawrence was paid for vacation time until February 2, 2013. Perhaps unconventionally, Brennan questioned the ALJ regarding Lawrence's alleged receipt of benefits during that same time period:

[ALJ]: The -- the Agency has found that [Lawrence] was ineligible for the time period of January 20th, 2013 through February 2nd, 2013.
[Brennan]: Okay, and -- and you show that [Lawrence] actually received pay for that time period?
ALJ: That she received vacation pay is what -- is what the Agency found. This is a hearing -- (multiple speakers) -- this is a hearing to just provide an answer as the claimant had -- has Ms. Lawrence has disputed that.
Brennan: Okay, so she did receive vacation pay for that time period, what, did she receive benefits for that time period?
ALJ: I -- I don't know, Ma'am, I -- I -- this hearing is -- I work for --don't work for the Agency. I work for the Michigan Administrative Hearing System.
Brennan: I see.
ALJ: Which -- which provides -- so if someone appeals a decision made by the Agency, they would appeal it to a separate body.
Brennan: Mm-hmm.
ALJ: I don't [sic] information that the Agency has as to when she was paid her benefits.

         The ALJ issued a written determination on June 10, 2015, summarizing the facts and issue presented as follows:

The Claimant works for the Employer [BHCC], a country club, whose main work is seasonal in nature. Each winter the Claimant is temporarily laid off. In 2013, the Claimant was laid off for the winter, but received vacation pay in the amount of $820.00 for the weeks ending January 16, 2013 and February 2, 2013. The Claimant does not dispute that she received the vacation pay, but does not believe that she received any unemployment benefits for those weeks and that no restitution is owed.

         However, the ALJ proceeded to consider the issue as one regarding Lawrence's eligibility, stating that "[t]he burden of proof is on the claimant to prove his/her eligibility for benefits." The ALJ affirmed the MUIA's May, 2015 redetermination with the following explanation:

If the Claimant receives vacation pay, it is considered income for the purposes of a benefit claim. Therefore, based on the Findings of Fact and in accordance with the relevant law . . . I find that the Claimant is ineligible for benefits for the period that she was laid off and received vacation pay.

         The ALJ made no finding regarding whether Lawrence did, in fact, receive benefit payments during the weeks she received vacation pay from her employer.

         Lawrence appealed the ALJ's decision to the MCAC on July 6, 2015, in a letter requesting oral ...


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